False Imprisonment

Understand the definition and criminal penalties for false imprisonment.

By , J.D.
Updated by Rebecca Pirius, Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law
Updated 9/27/2022

The crime of false imprisonment—sometimes called unlawful restraint or criminal confinement—occurs when one person unlawfully restrains someone else without the victim's consent and without lawful authority.

What Is False Imprisonment?

The idea of personal freedom is closely related to the belief that you can travel where you choose without being restrained by someone else. When someone else restrains you or prevents you from moving, this is punishable as a crime, known as false imprisonment.

To secure a conviction for false imprisonment, the prosecutor must prove the following elements beyond a reasonable doubt.

Intentionally Restrain Another

To be convicted of false imprisonment, a person must intentionally limit or restrict someone else's personal freedom against the victim's consent. The imprisonment can occur whenever the victim is restrained using physical force, coercion, reasonable apprehension, or threats. You can, for example, commit false imprisonment if you threaten the victim with violence if they try to leave. You can also commit false imprisonment if you restrain someone else by tricking them.

There is no specific amount of time required with false imprisonment charges. False imprisonment can occur if someone is restrained for a very brief amount of time, and there is no minimum amount of time that must be met.

Without Consent

False imprisonment can only occur if the victim does not consent to the restraint. Someone who hides in a room or closet to avoid someone isn't falsely imprisoned (unless the defendant threatens harm if they come out). While adults can grant consent by voluntarily remaining in the situation, the same does not apply to children or those who are legally incapacitated, such as adults with cognitive disabilities. A child or incapacitated adult does not have the legal ability to grant consent. In the situation where a legally incapacitated person is restrained, it's the consent of the legally incapacitated person's parent or guardian that is important.

Without Lawful Justification

In some situations, restraining another person is not false imprisonment even if the restrained person does not consent. For example, many states have laws that allow merchants or store owners to restrain someone suspected of stealing property from the store. However, store owners cannot simply restrain anyone. The retailer must have some reason to believe the person has stolen, or is about to steal, something.

What Are Examples of False Imprisonment?

False imprisonment charges often get tagged onto additional charges, such as robbery, assault, or stalking. Here are some examples of false imprisonment.

  • During a bank robbery, a co-defendant holds bank customers at gunpoint, ordering them not to move.
  • A couple breaks up, and the angry ex blocks the door and refuses to let the other person leave.
  • A man follows a young woman around a party. When she refuses to talk to him, he grabs her arm and won't let her go.
  • A store security guard locks all the doors and refuses to let customers leave until someone confesses to shoplifting.

Defenses to False Imprisonment

Someone charged with false imprisonment may try to defend the charges by poking holes in the prosecution's case. For instance, the defendant might allege that:

  • the restraint was accidental, not intentional (they accidentally locked the bedroom door)
  • the restraint was justified to prevent the other from being hurt (they restrained the person in an attempt to stop them from running into traffic), or
  • the person consented to the restraint (the 18-year-old girlfriend can legally consent to live with her boyfriend without her parent's consent).

Another common defense to false imprisonment charges is the shopkeeper's privilege. In many states, a store owner may lawfully detain a suspected shoplifter until police arrive or to get the suspect's identification and information. But, the store owner must reasonably believe the person shoplifted and can't subject the person to a lengthy detention, unreasonable force, or interrogation. So, in the above example where the security guard locks everyone in the store, the guard has committed false imprisonment because the guard didn't have reasonable belief to detain all the customers.

What Are the Penalties for False Imprisonment?

A conviction for false imprisonment can lead to substantial penalties. Depending on the state and the circumstances of the case, false imprisonment can be charged as either a misdemeanor or felony offense. Felony offenses are the more serious of the two and have stiffer penalties associated with them.

Misdemeanor convictions can lead to up to a year in jail, whereas felony convictions can mean prison time. False imprisonment might carry felony charges if the defendant threatened violence, harmed the victim, placed the victim at risk of serious harm, restrained a child, or restrained someone for a lengthy time. Felony convictions can result in 10 years in prison or more.

Contact a Criminal Defense Attorney

A conviction for false imprisonment is a very serious matter and one that requires the advice of an experienced criminal defense attorney. False imprisonment charges can significantly harm your life even if you are never convicted. Because of the serious nature of these crimes and the possibility that you could spend a substantial time in jail, you should never make any decisions about your false imprisonment charges until you speak to a criminal defense lawyer in your area.

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